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River Journal from the Lower San Joaquin River


Revive the San Joaquin Board member Sean Walker and myself set out on Sunday evening for two days of paddling on the Lower San Joaquin River. Walt Shubin, another Revive Board member, joined us on Tuesday morning as we moved downriver ultimately meeting up with a group of canoes from the Tuolumne River Trust as part of their Paddle to the Sea event at the confluence of the Tuolumne River. Special thanks to Sean's brother Mikey for shuttling both cars upstream, a four-hour journey as we couldn't leave our boats unattended. Next time we will try to get both boats on one car and find better, safer overnight parking at the takeout.

The trip was one of the most relaxing 2 days of my life. Our goal of 26 miles a day was very achievable as we ended our days at around 5pm. The current was moving swiftly, thanks to the new restoration program flows from Friant dam, making the paddling easier and the ride enjoyable. I was absolutely amazed at the scale and beauty of the Grasslands wildlife preserve and couldn't believe that was my first time there, as it is so close to Fresno. I was also pleasantly surprised at how remote and natural the river banks were.  I imagined we would see much more development and people, but this was a real wilderness experience. The second day had some very nice stretches of river winding through preserves and wild areas, although there were many stretches of river that were highly modified by rip rap flood walls, cattle grazing, and two massive sewage plant outlets which affected the natural experience. Overall the trip was much more rewarding than I had even expected. The following are some highlights:

  
This is a picture of where our trip started in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. The first day of paddling also took us through the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area and the Fremont Ford State Recreation Area. I have never seen an area with so much wildlife. Just after sunset the beavers wereslapping their tails to make their presence known, fish were jumping, owls and bats swooping, turtles were diving, coyotes howling.

This is Sean getting ready for our first day. He was paddling the mothership, an old 16 foot steel canoe bought from Sears and outfitted with oars and a solar/battery powered electric trolling motor.

 

This is me. I was paddling a 12 foot sit-on-top kayak. It has just enough room for camping gear, food, and clothes and had a very comfortable seat.

This shows us paddling through the Grasslands complex. Here we saw hawks, egrets, ducks, Great Blue Herons, cormorants, kingfishers, White Pelicans, beavers, fish, and many other unknown bird species.

This is a picture of Sean rounding a bend in the Grasslands. The preserve has a confined area with native Tule Elk that was not visable from the river. Sean mentioned that they have an annual "hunt" where permits are issued to shoot the overpopulated Elk on the reserve, my thoughts were that if they are overpopulated why not just re-release them into the reserve? I will need a biologist to answer that question.

This is a picture from the banks of the river showing an example of what was probably typical of most of the San Joaquin River bottom 100 years ago.  The matted grass at the front of the photo is probably from a resting deer.  I feel we were looking into a time machine into pre-settlement California.

This is a rookery in an old Oak Grove where hundreds of egrets, herons, cormorants, and other birds were resting. The leaves of the tree were covered in white dropppings and all manners of squeeks and squawks were signaling some strange gathering of species into a city of birds. I wonder if these rookeries change location and if so when and why? Here I felt like I was in the Amazon and not the Valley.

Here I latched on to Seans boat in some flatwater and enjoyed the passing scenery as we trolled downstream.  The motor was great for the occasional resting of the paddling shoulders, and it could run for most of a day on low power from just one deep cycle marine battery. Even though we saw several powerboats on the lower stretches of river, I could see no need to speed back and forth as just a little patience could get you anywhere on the river in a day without pollution and noise. 


This is a common sight, an old pump shaft housing for riparian agricultural water diversion.

There were quite a few pipes with return flows to the river. Some agricultural returns were very dirty and others were cleaner.  There is definetly a need to pursue more best management practices for Agricultural wastewater returns to the river. Letting the water and chemicals settle in a wetland prior to returning it to the river lets all the silts and particulates settle and allows pesticides and ag chemicals to break down first.


A set of old Oaks near our campsite on day 2.  These groves of old Oak trees are remnants of the Oak forests that used to dominate the Valley alongside the San Joaquin River's floodplain. Over 95% of the river's riparian woodlands have been lost in the last century. Other than the State and federal protected areas, there still remain a few expansive forests on private lands where the floodplains and flood channels made agriculture or development difficult. Let's hope these remain wild in perpetuity.

 

I was surprised to see another rookery near Patterson. Some of the herons here have an 8 foot wingspan. Amazing watching them take off and land. Clumbsy yet graceful, the 747's of the river.

This Oak tree looks like a floating island. I noticed how they both stabilize the bank, and also provide needed habitat when they fall in the water. The most active areas for fish, vegetation and wildlife were in these fallen trees where they slow the river's flow. They create a sort of refugia used by fish, plants, turtles, beavers, etc.

 

Sean and Walt making their way towards Grayson.

These are photos of some private lands with thriving Oak woodlands near Patterson.

I was surprised to see cows in the river! I thought this was not permitted but I guess I was wrong. What happened to public trust resources and the river as a drinking water supply? It seems there could be huge benefits in water quality if the fences could be pushed back a hundred feet and that water could be pumped into ponds for the cattle. The cows are also quite devastating to the riparian vegetation in some areas as seen here.

It was a real shock to see so much of the river's banks covered in rip rap. Where chunks of concrete were dozed over the river's bank apparently for flood protection, the river and its riparian forests are all but dead.  I could see no logical reason for doing this other than to protect a small portion of the adjacent landowner's property form erosion.  In my mind there is no clear public benefit from these activities and I would be ashamed to find out that taxpayer money was spent destroying the river's banks. This rip rap fortification activitiy has apparently created a mindset that it is OK for anyone to dump anything on the shore of the river and there was evidence this is still occuring today. Walt says he has seen hundreds upon hundreds of miles of rip rap that have destroyed the character of the river, and calls the engineers that undertook this effort "Geniuses! Spending our taxpayer money to destory our river."

Some feathered friends we met along the way.

This shows the native grasslands returning at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and replanted by River Partners. This refuge in Stanislaus Co.is made up of 1,700ac of riparian woodlands near Modesto. Additional lands owned by the Lyons family have remained preserved and have seen a rebound in endangered populations of the Aleutian Canada Geese.  We met up with the Tuolumne River Trust fundraiser event at the end of our trip where we met Bill Lyons and his family.  Even though the family once had plans for development, they decided to protect their riparian woodlands after a family member noticed a rookery of egrets in the trees and was moved to see the natural qualities preserved. Many of the willow trees in the foreground were planted during restoration efforts. The preserve had abundant wildlife and gave me a feeling of floating through an African savanna with its open grasslands, only no giraffes or hippos were sighted on this trip.

 

This photo shows us meeting up with the Tuolumne River Trust as they Paddle to the Sea. They started rafting in the upper Tuolumne River and are making their way to the San Fransico Bay where they will kayak across the Bay and have a final party at Pier 39's Aquarium of the Bay. We had a great dinner at the Trust's fundraiser sponsored by Sierra Nevada Brewery. The Old Sportsmen's Club was a unique private facility right off Highway 132 at the River. 

Overall, the trip was a great success and really got me thinking about how connected Fresno is to the Bay-Delta. I would recommend this trip to anyone with some experience paddling on a river. It rejuvinated my interest in San Joaquin Valley wildlife areas, and made me feel that river protection efforts are well within our grasp. Floating north through the valley on the San Joaquin was like having a scenic highway all to ourselves, and I felt like I finally connected with the true heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

Chris Acree

Revive the San Joaquin 

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